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What I learned from my PhD

Today, I am hosting Dr. Hanan Almahasheer, who shares some insights she gained during her PhD in Saudi Arabia. Hanan recently got her PhD degree from Kaust, and currently working as a lecturer at IAU. Her background is in Mangroves ecology and its ecosystem services. You can find more about her work on research-gate. In her free time, she enjoys music and movies, plantation projects with school students and community services. You may find her on Twitter.

About three years ago I began my PhD, the first couple of weeks were emotionally tough as I had never been away from home before. Suddenly, I was 800 miles away from home and everyone I knew and at the same time I was afraid to fail and go back home. I had the enthusiasm and motivation to succeed. I honestly was, and still am, in love with my subject. However, in those early stages of my doctoral work, I did not have the confidence I was later able to achieve, and as a result, on my first semester I was a little hesitant in purchasing many items, just in case I was tempted to go back in a hurry. I wanted less things to carry. But I survived.

Back then I read a lot of articles about “surviving a PhD”. Many were useful, especially the ones about time management, but others were a bit misleading. I noticed a general trend in those articles describing the supervisor as a busy person who does not have time for you and much of the advice focused on how to strengthen your relationship with your supervisor group as the people who would be most beneficial for you. I personally think it is a good idea to have a good relationship with the people around you before you need a last-minute favor. However, the most important relationship that you need to build is the one with your supervisor.

Yet, on the first day I met my supervisor, he kind of confirmed the message above when he said “this is your PhD, not mine. I finished mine a long time ago”. He kept repeating this line all over the years, which was annoying, but at the end I realized that he subconsciously challenged me to take control of my own PhD.

To overcome this, I decided to jump to it. I reminded myself every day that I need to be a proactive person. No one will knock on the door. I worked hard, waking up at 5 A.M. every day, finishing my daily routine to be in my office, lab or on the boat ready for my field work by 7 A.M. sharp. I have learned a few lessons along the way that I want to pass on to others.

  • First of all, don’t get a PhD for the wrong reasons. Read Should I get a PhD? I know it is painful to be at a crossroad. Instead, do it to achieve something or learn and invest in yourself.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and avoid the lazy ones who keep complaining about everything, they will just drag you down with them.
  • Buy your favorite coffee mug before buying your laptop. And it is ok to have a messy desk, “remember Einstein did”.

  • When you write your proposal, check the previous work of your group and others around you, remember everything is connected.
  • Always thank people when they help you, show that you value their time.
  • Make sure your project has a variety of research options, it is time for you to explore new things.
  • Passion is what you need now, so make sure you are happy with your topic. At the end of the day when you find yourself working hard alone, you will feel much better doing something you love instead of what your supervisor loves.
  • Always write the methods on the same day you do your experiment. By doing this, not only do you avoid forgetting anything but when you start writing your paper, it will be a matter of copy and paste.
  • Do not work in the lab when you are exhausted. I ended up having three stitches on my hand when I did that.
  • Find activities that make you happy, it will boost your energy and might strengthen your CV. (I used to collect seashells from my field work and give them to the teacher of daycare students to study them).

  • Don’t rely too much on your supervisor. When you find a stumbling block, talk about it but also suggest solutions (i.e. do your homework, do some reading about the problem. This will help him to use his scientific instinct).
  • When your meeting is canceled at the last moment and you really need that meeting, you will start wondering why you worked so hard late into the night. I made this mistake before, I even thought that my supervisor did not like my work, but then I realized how much he was overbooked. So instead try to get his support via emails.
  • Occasionally, you will be extremely frustrated with your supervisor. At this point, I recommend to be frank, talk to him. Get it out of your system so you can move on, but do not take it personally and quit your PhD out of anger. One of my colleagues did that as she did not want to give her supervisor the satisfaction of graduating a student.
  • Once I read that the supervisor’s secretary is the most important person you need to be friends with. I totally agree since she controls his agenda!
  • Seek perfection when you write your paper. If it is boring for you, it definitely will be boring for others.
  • Don’t spend a long period of time on your PhD, set up a timetable and stick to it.
  • The final advice is from my co-supervisor, he said “in the beginning I teach you; then you will return the favor by teaching me at the end” he meant that I will be an expert. But I immediately thought he was crazy, since I used to see both of my supervisors as supermen, however, one day I did teach him something, and I was so happy to do it.
    So, be passionate, work hard and make sure to teach your supervisor one thing before you leave!

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